The IPA Professional Simonis World Series & GBO 2016
It was a first in a number of ways. For starters it was the first time that the IPA World Professional Pool series had visited the Rock of Gibraltar, bringing with it star professional players, a champion amateur player, a professional coach and two of the IPA’s most senior officials, Senior Professional referee Mel Harley and IPA Chairman, Kevin Barton. For some of the visiting players, it was the first time they had ever stepped foot on Gibraltar and knew it only by its renowned Barbary apes, its proximity to the Costa del Sol and the fact that it flew the British flag. It was clearly set to be a test.
For many of the local pool players, thirsty for experiences of world class pool and hungry to hone their competitive skills, this was the first time they had watched live pool played at world class level, let alone competed at such a high standard. The Gibraltar Pool Association, eager to continue supporting the spread of the sport locally, had arranged two tournaments in order to select a local team to take on the might of the IPA’s team in one of the weekend’s competitions.
The Gibraltar Select Team keen, and with the Gibraltar national squad shortly to set off for the European Blackball Championships in Bridlington UK, Premier Cue Sports, in conjunction with the GPA, arranged for professional IPA player and coach, Jimmy Carney, to deliver several coaching sessions to the local players at the GPA’s Academy. Well-received by the pool players, Jimmy struck up an excellent rapport with the home team and his words of wisdom were readily taken on board. Jimmy Carney also found time in his busy schedule to carry out some intensive one on one coaching at several of the pool establishments in Gibraltar. Dubbed as “The Showman” Jimmy went on to showcase his skills superbly for his onlookers in the Gibraltar Blackball Open.
Team Gibraltar were uncertain how they would perform. Some of them had already played at international level and were well aware of the standards they were up against. Were they going to be eclipsed, wiped out, annihilated, or would they be able to at least give a good account of themselves on home turf? They had never been tested like this before with local audiences watching on in the flesh.
The weekend included a number of competitions as well as the team challenge: the Gibraltar Blackball Open, a pool competition open to all-comers; the last man standing charity competition; and, the most prestigious of them, the Simonis Professional World Series Grand Finals. If no local players had made it through to Team Gibraltar or into the Open tournament, there was another competition available: the Last Man Standing. This was open to all-comers and the entry fee would contribute towards Cancer Relief Gibraltar. It was set to be a veritable feast of pool.
Professional cue sports enthusiast, Paul Heard of Premier Cue Sports, secured this prestigious World Series event for Gibraltar whilst himself taking part in the 2015 IPA UK tour event in Brighton. Various discussions with Kevin Barton, IPA Chairman and the brainchild behind the World Series, were followed by months of negotiations and preparation. Supported by the boundless energy of his partner, Jill Kearney, and his son, Ethan, Paul had spent the past few months organising venue, preparing match tables, securing players and above all securing the support of fellow enthusiasts who helped pull the event together.
The event opened on Good Friday, 25th March, the benefit of this being a bank holiday immediately felt in the strong attendance of local players taking part in the preliminary rounds of the Gibraltar Blackball Open 2016. The play was intense from the start, the weaker, less experienced players, or those who were having an off day or whose nerves couldn’t quite stand the test, soon whittled away to become spectators. Even at these early stages the competition was keen, yet it was good-humoured, old friends and teammates supporting each other even through their early defeats.
The pros arrived late on Friday afternoon, in time to take part in their rounds of the Open. This was the first test for the local players. Would they be overawed by the occasion and by the reputation that preceded the visitors? Not entirely. Gibraltarian grit quickly showed itself, and Julian McGrail made the world’s top ranked professional, the young and incredibly talented Clint I’Anson, work for the lead and for his place in the next round. The match was perhaps a warm up for Clint who had travelled from UK that morning, but it was no walkover and the host players could rightly be proud of McGrail’s effort. As they were a short while later of Jonathan Collado as he progressed through the rounds of the Open.
Anaika Buhagiar then played the inimitable Simon Ward, and if the result was perhaps a foregone conclusion, she played a gutsy game against a young man who moves around the table with a beautiful fluidity, as if he had been born with a cue in his hand.
The first day of this inaugural event ended with the fun and laughter of the Last Man Standing competition. This intense sport did not lose in its competitiveness, but there was a sense of relaxation fuelled by the good humoured heckling of the spectators, a mixed bunch of pros and amateurs, their friends and family. Experienced Gibraltar player, Nicky Correa, made the foremost Irish professional player, Ronan McCarthy, work for his win and took the cheers of the good-humoured audience with good grace. The Last Man Standing at the end of the night was Clint I’Anson, who narrowly beat Simon Ward. The competition was keen, but the tone had been set for what was to be a weekend of superb pool and awe-inspiring skill.
Saturday brought a long day of hard work by players, tournament organisers and hotel staff alike. The competition was unrelenting, players moving from table to table, retiring to their rooms or to their homes for the occasional break and refreshments and to catch their breath before the next round. Mel Harley joined the event, as did Kevin Barton, enjoying the atmosphere and checking progress.
The Gibraltar players were determined to acquit themselves well in the Open, and so they did, the struggle for the quarter finals tough, with a spectacular battle on Table 4 between Paul Heard himself and Guy Olivero. Paul had torn the ligaments in his leg late the previous night and was warding off a hospital visit just to take part, but Guy is a very strong player and eventually Paul had to give way 5-4.
Meanwhile, Liam Golt was drawn against Welsh professional player, Craig Marsh, and Ernest Clinton was pitched against Clint I’Anson. Gibraltarians are nothing if not stubborn and these players were not going to give way easily. Liam played hard against one of the world’s heavyweights, who initially seemed a little out of sorts. Liam capitalised on a number of Craig’s errors, but the Welshman soon limbered up and eased his way into the next round 5-3. Ernest was never going to have it easy against Clint, a quiet, understated player with breathtaking talent. He barely blinked as he took frame after frame, a neat, methodical, well-tuned potting machine.
As the rounds wore on, the technical crew began to set up the live streaming equipment. Gibraltar was showcased to the world, its hospitality, its ability to organise a prestigious world-class event being put to the test. Local players fell by the wayside; the event became increasingly formal and the competition more intense. The spectators were rapt, treated to a standard of pool playing they would normally only see on TV.
To close off the day, Team Gibraltar took on Team IPA. If the Gibraltar Select Team was nervous, they were not showing it, and the match started in a mood of determination. They took the first set to the delight of the spectators. Team IPA was too strong, however, taking the match by 8 - 5. Team Gibraltar were pleased with their strong performance in their first ever match against such an experienced team.
On Sunday, Mel Harley, the “Man in the Middle”, orchestrated the Open final and the professional finals with the consummate ease of a seasoned professional, commanding the floor and ensuring play at table was perfectly executed. Kevin Barton took to the commentator’s mike inviting to his side the pros who had not quite made it through and Gibraltar’s own Nicky Correa & Paul Heard to give their take on play.
The third place play off took place against Ronan McCarthy and Chris Bowron. Having looked invincible in the early frames, McCarthy had to keep his cool and his nerves steady to keep Bowron at bay. Still hungry from his defeat at the hands of Craig Marsh in the earlier semi-finals, Bowron bent his head to the attack and clawed his way back from trailing three frames behind. The mark of a champion is the ability to think clearly under this sort of pressure and McCarthy demonstrated pure professionalism in deftly steering his way around every obstacle that Bowron threw in his path. Not an easy challenge by any means, but McCarthy was up to it and beat Bowron with a score line of 5 frames to 3.
In the final of the Gibraltar Blackball Open, Simon Ward took on Craig Marsh. Marsh set the pace, taking the first two frames with an ease that belied the tension of the competition and the quality of his adversary. Ward stayed calm and patient, capitalised on a rare error by Craig Marsh in the third frame and went on to win the next two frames, bringing the score back to an even 2 frames to 2.
Each frame proved to be a tussle for victory. At 7 - 7 the match could have gone either way, it was hard for the spectators to judge which player had the upper hand. At the decider, Ward took the break. It was tense, the spectators sharply taking in their breath when Ward left a yellow ball teetering on the edge of the pocket only to have it dropping and allowing him to dominate play, then missing a pot to leave the table dangerously in Marsh's hands. Even the commentators for the live streaming hushed in a degree of awe as Marsh potted red after red, then sunk the black effortlessly to take the title.
With only a short space of time in which to regain composure, Ward returned to the floor for the Simonis World Series Grand final against Clint I’Anson. Spectators eased themselves into the game room and spoke only in hushed whispers. They had seen the skills that these players had at their disposal and they were clearly evenly matched.
Ward broke and took the first frame with consummate ease, but that was just an ice-breaker as the second frame became a battleground for their skills of mastery of cue, nerve and strategy. The frame was a game of cat and mouse, each player jostling for supremacy, intent on outwitting the other as much as outplaying them. It was a demonstration not just of pool played perfectly but also of the power of keeping focused and holding any nerves totally steady. Eventually Ward took the match in style, clearing up the table and winning at 2 sets to 1. An appreciative audience broke into applause to congratulate both players in what was an absorbing final and awe-inspiring final.
Had Paul Heard’s ambition to bring Professional world class pool to Gibraltar succeeded? Was the Inaugural IPA Professional World Series Gibraltar 2016 a complete success? The answer is a resounding “yes”. Paul had mobilised local pool players and supporters, as well as local people with useful skills who had little prior knowledge of the game. He mobilised the media and persuaded local photographer, Tommy Finlayson to attend the entire event. He spent three days moving discreetly around the tables to provide a superb photographic record. The technical team, who included Jordan Lopez at the iMac providing the live streaming and Jonathan Collado, who provided the sound and PA system, worked hour after hour. The event director, Dave Anderson, made sure score sheets were accurate and that the transitions from table to table were uncomplicated and smooth, and, memorably, that the running commentary for Last Man Standing kept everyone on their toes and laughing. Not only did the team work tirelessly - and there were more people involved than mentioned here - but they have already put themselves forward to help again next year. From a spectator’s perspective, it was a captivating, absorbing event, in turn tense and entertaining, exciting and dramatic. The venue was excellent and the O’Callaghan Eliott Hotel gained well-deserved praise as the event’s hosts, their staff accommodating and friendly, the coffee good, the beer better and the food a delight. And the players? The local players are still talking about it today, and will be for some time to come. Facebook and Twitter were alive with commentary from the media team and from supporters, in Gibraltar and abroad. The Gibraltar Chronicle and Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation reported at length on the event and the local Ministry for Sport was keenly interested and supportive. The visitors enjoyed the event, and the venue, with local players taking groups of visitors to see the local sights - Europa Point on a beautiful spring Saturday meant magnificent views of the North African mountains.
It was an inaugural event, the first of its kind in Gibraltar. Given its resounding success and the support it gathered in such a short space of time, it will certainly not be the last. The IPA is bringing the Tour back in 2017. Gibraltar’s pool enthusiasts are already practising.
By Jackie Anderson